They say the most long lived of the French are those lucky enough to live in Gascony in the south-west. There was a piece on Gascony in The New York Times recently, by David McAninch. His book, “Duck Season: Eating, Drinking and other Misadventures in Gascony, France’s Last Best Place,” just came out. In the article he wrote about what these folks eat and what they drink, which, along with a jovial approach to daily living, seems to affect their longevity.
These hearty south westerners frequently blast into their nineties without ever eating a bowl of granola. They don’t do kale. They haven’t much use for olive oil. They ignore the glycemic index chart. They use duck fat on just about everything, especially potatoes — fried in lots of it. They love their ducks. They eat them by the millions — cooked in their own fat, confit style. They eat fat soaked pork and duck rillettes by the truck load, and everybody has a stash of foie gras in the cupboard in case guests show up, and if they don’t it gets eaten alone. Think twice before you decide to move there and open a yogurt or kombucha shop — you’ll end up drowning your sorrows in a bottle of Armagnac, the local brandy.
And then there’s the wine. The article mentioned Madiran: the local juice, dark and tannic, made from the tannat grape. I did a google search on Madiran, and came across an article from The Wine Society; it referenced research done by British scientist, Professor Roger Corder of the William Harvey Research Institute, London. A committed oenophile, he led a study on the health benefits of wine consumption and his most favorable results came from Madirin wines, grown in the heart of Gascony, from the tannat grape. According to the professor, who, after the exhaustive research, was reportedly still standing, the tannat grape has some of the highest levels of procyanidins in any wine.
The procyanidins are the guys who work tirelessly to keep the vessels open and the blood pulsing through with relaxed gusto. It’s no surprise then, that there’s an absence of cardio vascular surgeons in Gascony.
If you are a wine drinker, as I am, you have probably discovered by now that wine can be a food, a medicine, or a poison. It all depends on how you self administer. If taken as a food — by that I mean drinking it with a meal — ideally, in this case something fatty like duck — as if it’s its own side dish, then, according to Professor Cordy, Madiran wine with its long fermentation time and abundance of procyanidins is the healthiest wine of all to drink —a medicine in fact.
Most mass-produced wines have low levels of procyanidins, and Cordy says, “one small glass of this wine can provide more benefit than two bottles of most Australian wine.” I assume he means mass-produced wine from any region, and he’s not singling out the Aussies here.
Madiran, however, may not be to your taste. It’s a monster: bold, brash and dirty; it can be coarse and full of bravado, which, If that’s coming from a wine, I’m fine with it. Woody Allen suggests it would pair well with an elephant burger, and he may be right, but that could be tough as a trunk—I’d say you’d be better off with duck confit.
You can pay a lot of money in Denver these days to eat a leg of duck confit in public. But if you’re feeling frugal, enthusiastically inclined — and enjoy hanging out in your kitchen in the company of a gently bubbling pot of duck legs in fragrant fat, you can pick up a leg for four bucks, which is about the price of a cup of hipster coffee these days — you’ll also need a tub of duck fat and not much else. You can reuse the fat, so, economically, it’s a win — and if you want to cut costs, you can make it with a humble chicken leg, and you will be happy with the results.
As long as you strain the fat after each use, it will last multiple times. The classic way to serve duck confit is to roast it to a nice, crisp skin and eat it on top of a mound of potatoes fried in duck fat, with a recklessly dressed garlicky green salad.
4-6 duck legs with thighs attached.
salt, ground black pepper, a few ground up juniper berries, a few ground up cardamom pods and a clove or two.
A tub of duck fat.
Prick and season the legs liberally with salt, pepper and spices. Put them a bowl and refrigerate uncovered overnight. This starts the curing process.
Next day rub off most off the spices with a paper towel and discard them.
Melt the fat in a heavy pot. Carefully add the duck legs. Bring it slowly to a simmer making sure the legs are submerged in the fat. Cook on low heat on top of the stove keeping it at a bare bubble, (or you can put it in the oven covered), for about 2 1/2 hours. If you do it in the oven, I find 225ºf/105c maintains a gentle simmer. But check every so often just to be sure.
Store the legs buried in the fat. Dig them out as required; roast them with potatoes in their fat until the skin is nice and crispy. They improve with age and will last for weeks and weeks. They’re perfect for entertaining as all the grunt work is done behind the scenes and ahead of time. And if you come across the book, as I just did, you will find it to be a thoroughly fatty, juicy read.